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The Kingmakers: Sabah, Sarawak and the 12th Malaysia General Elections

March 26, 2008

The Economist last week featured a telling pie chart on Malaysia’s 12th general election results. It revealed, without analysis, that Malaysia’s Barisan National (BN) coalition has the electorate in Sabah and Sarawak to thank for saving its narrow majority in parliament. While the BN was toppled in key states like Penang and Selangor, there was barely a ripple in voter trends in Malaysia’s eastern most states. Almost all BN candidates in both states won with a solid majority. The BN has been the ruling coalition in Malaysia since 1974, though its dominant party the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been in the governing seat since independence in 1957.

These often ignored states are now enjoying the limelight as kingmakers for the BN and are well placed to cash in on the attention.

Geographically separated from Kuala Lumpur by the South China Sea, Sabah and Sarawak comprise 5.4 million people or 20% of Malaysia’s population of 27 million. Together the states gave the BN 54 seats out of 140 in the Malaysian parliament. 41 of these seats are held by local Sabah and Sarawak parties that have joined the BN coalition.

However, the BN’s success in Eastern Malaysia should not lead observers to believe that Sabahans and Sarawakians are satisfied with the BN’s governance, accountability and service delivery in their states.

Despite their wealth in natural resources, Sabah and Sarawak are amongst Malaysia’s poorest states. In Sabah, 24% of households live below the national poverty line and child poverty rates are 42%. More than one fifth of the population aged six and over has never been to school. Malaysia enjoys the unflattering distinction of having the highest Gini coefficient in Southeast Asia attributable to the high incidence of poverty in Eastern Malaysia. Sabah’s GDP per capita is less than 50% of the national average. Furthermore, most of Sabah and Sarawak’s poor come from the non-Malay Bumiputra population (61% of Sabah and more than 50% of Sarawak). Clearly, the affirmative action New Economic Policies of UMNO and the BN have not been successful in alleviating these indigenous people from poverty.

Why then, when their development has lagged under decades of BN and UMNO rule, did the local parties, give the BN so many seats in parliament? First the local parties in Sabah and Sarawak are homegrown; the opposition parties are not and are seen to represent the interests of peninsular Malaysians. Until the opposition parties establish roots in Eastern Malaysia they will continue to have limited traction amongst the electorate. Second, everyday Sabahans and Sarawakians worry that voting for the opposition may result in the loss of vital development grants and projects for their states. Certainly BN politicians have dangled the fruit of these grants temptingly during the campaign. Sabahans also feel that constituencies which fell to the opposition parties in the 2006 state elections were subsequently denied federal development grants. Voter education workshops with citizens in Eastern Malaysia reveal that they feel their needs are more likely to be addressed as part of the governing coalition than the opposition.

Furthermore, though peninsular Malaysians very rarely refer to Sabah and Sarawak in their political debates, national politicians are acutely aware of the importance of the Eastern votes and have rewarded their vote bank by building highways and airports. However if Sabah and Sarawak are to emerge from the development doldrums and their voters kept “on side” the BN must reward the backbone of its support with more than tarred roads. In the future, they may demand more power at the centre and more meaningful growth-led development.

Sabah’s shifting demographics add a further layer of complexity to this analysis. 25% of Sabah’s population is comprised of non-Malaysian citizens, mostly Muslim Indonesians and Filipinos, many who entered Malaysia illegally through the state’s porous borders, many seeking jobs and a better life. Many have become “regularized” by the federal government and thereby earn the right to vote. While the means through which these citizens have acquired their papers may be dubious, they form a significant power base for the Muslim dominated UNMO. Critics cry fowl and claim this is an attempt to buy votes in exchange for citizenship. The issue is one of increasing social tension in Sabah and Sarawak which UNMO will need to adroitly navigate.

There was much more to Malaysia’s 12th General Elections than meets the eye. Not least, it provides a pivotal opportunity for the citizens of Sabah and Sarawak to exercise more influence over national policy and get a better deal for themselves. Recognition of their role as “Ėœkingmakers’ has already sparked grumbling within Sabah and Sarawak that they only received 5 ministerial seats out of 27 in the new cabinet. With 54 seats in parliament, the time is ripe for Eastern Malaysians to put their key issues ” like land rights, illegal immigration, persistent poverty, and sub-par economic growth ” on the table. If the BN does not pay attention the outcome of the 13th General Election is likely to be quite different than the 12th.

Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Malaysia. She can be reached at amulakala@asiafound.org.

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